Try the Fluency in a Flash Club for just $1! ➔

The Secret to End of Year Survival [episode 7]


Click below to listen to our secret to the end of year:

Listen on Apple Podcasts | Listen on Spotify | Listen on Stitcher

Morning Message: 

[0:54] What is something you remember about elementary school that your students wouldn’t understand now? 

It’s amazing to think how much education and the classroom has changed over the years. Our students are growing up with technology at their fingertips, which opens up a world of possibilities for them. But for some of us, we didn’t have that growing up!

We reminisced about things our students wouldn’t understand today. Something that we remember is the adrenaline rush you had when you saw your teacher roll in the TV cart and clapping chalk erasers outside.

Getting our listeners involved is something we enjoy, so some of their responses include filmstrips that you manually had to advance, overhead projectors, card catalogs, and of course, Oregon Trail.

We’d love to hear your responses, so let us know over on Instagram!

Here’s an overview of episode 7:

Welcome back to another episode! For a lot of us teachers, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel that leads us to summer. We’re so close, but yet there are still so many more days to teach, engage kids, and ultimately survive until the end.

For those that are stumped to know what to do the last few weeks of school, we’ve got you covered! In this episode, we’re spilling our secret to surviving the end of the school year. 

Just like you at the end of the year, we’re tired, exhausted, and our creativity seems to have run dry, which is why we came up with the secret to the end of the year: theme days! Having theme days is an easy way to keep students engaged and keeps the planning to a minimum. 

A big component for the end of the year is ensuring students are invested and actively participating in the activity, which translates to learning.

We’ve come up with a theory that engagement is composed of two things: novelty and predictability. Throughout the episode, we discuss how to achieve both of these through a balancing act. 

Ever heard the saying, there’s no tired like the end of the year teacher tired? That’s true for a reason! When implementing theme days, it provides structure, limits to planning, and reduces the decision fatigue in planning, for you’ve done that all year long!

Throughout our conversation, we outline a step-by-step plan on how to incorporate theme days in your classroom with questions to think about.

We get it, you’re tired! So why not add some fun and engagement to your school day with theme days?! Not only will your students gravitate towards the novelty, but will thrive on the predictability and routine of their regular day. Try some of our theme days and let us know what you think!

In this episode on surviving the end of year, we discuss:

  • How to balance novelty and predictability when incorporating theme days
  • Why all worksheets aren’t created equal and how to use them effectively during your theme days
  • A complete step-by-step outline of how to plan for an engaging theme day in your classroom
  • How to keep kids engaged and learning through the end of the year

This week’s teacher approved tip:

[16:24] Print pages at 50% to save copies

Let’s be honest, as teachers we use a lot of papers for copies, so why not cut that in half? Using this tip helps when saving money or on a budget for your school when it comes to copies. An added bonus is getting more information and activities on one sheet of copy paper, therefore, using less paper.

What we’re giving extra credit to this week:

[17:27] Heidi is giving extra credit to Kensey Jones’ 2nd grade class in Richmond, Virginia

[18:36] Emily is giving extra credit to Grandpa Beck’s Games


Read the transcript for episode 7, The Secret to End of Year Survival:

Hey there, thanks for joining us today. In today’s episode, we’ll be discussing our end of year survival secret and sharing a teacher approved tip for saving on copies.

We’re starting our episodes with a morning message just like we used to do at morning meeting in our classrooms. This week’s morning message is, What is something you remember from elementary school that your students wouldn’t understand now? For me, I think it is just that adrenaline rush that came when you saw the teacher wheeling in the TV cart. And you knew that like Reading Rainbow was in your imminent future. What about you, Emily?

I have very fond memories of clapping erasers outside. In sixth grade, particularly, we would do it outside and we would hit them against the school. I don’t know if we were supposed to be doing that. But that’s what we did. We’d be hitting those big chalkboard erasers against the school. And I think our students today would have no frame of reference for doing that. And all the coughing from the toxicity. Absolutely. We have some responses from listeners too that we’re going to share. On Facebook Brenda mentioned filmstrips that you manually advanced and we actually do both remember that I can still hear that ding in my head. Yep. And Becky mentioned overhead projectors, which doesn’t seem like it’s that long ago. But I did have to explain what that was to a new teacher who couldn’t figure out what was in her classroom. So that makes me laugh; make me felt 800 years old. I did use it when I started in, you know, 2006 was my first year I had an overhead projector and translucent, math manipulatives. Those are so special on my overhead projector. Miss Cone on Instagram mentioned card catalogs, which also made us laugh. I was just at the library with my kids the other day, and I was explaining card catalogs to them when they were looking something up on the computer. And my oldest daughter said, Oh, was that so much better? No, it was not better. It was far less efficient.

And several people shared about Oregon Trail. And we are also part of the Oregon Trail generation, there is nothing like sliding that Oregon Trail floppy disk into the Mac computer. I swear that I became a fast typer in elementary school because we couldn’t play Oregon Trail till we were done with our typing assignment. So thank you Oregon Trail. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this question over on Instagram. You can find us at @2ndstorywindow. And that’s what the two.

We have the secret to surviving the last few weeks of school. Do you want to know what it is? Theme days! Where’s Oprah when you need her? You get a theme day, you get a theme day!

We love themed days for two reasons. First, they keep kids engaged. So what do we mean by that? By engagement? We mean that the kids are invested and actively participating in whatever we’re doing at the time. And why does engagement matter? Well, the more engaged they are, the less likely they are to be causing problems, obviously. And the more engaged they are, the more likely that they’re actually learning something. So win win there.

Our theory that we totally made up. This is our made up theory of engagement. But all theories are made up, so I guess we’re in good company, right? Our theory is that engagement has two components. And that is novelty, and predictability. So novelty is easy to understand when something is new, you’re naturally more drawn to it. The role predictability plays in engagement is more subtle, but it’s definitely not any less important. So imagine for a second that you’re in a completely novel environment, you’re onstage with the symphony orchestra or you’ve landed on an alien planet. The novelty of the setting requires you to pay 100% attention to what is going on. But are you engaging with it? And I would argue no. If something is completely novel, you’re so focused on figuring out what’s going on and what’s expected of you that you probably don’t have the mental capacity available to fully participate in the experience. So to maximize engagement, we can’t just rely on novelty we need to balance novelty with predictability. And we’re going to be talking about that several times throughout this episode. That’s kind of the key here is balancing novelty with predictability.

And the second reason that we like theme days is they make planning easier. You might not think that but it is true. Because listen, those last few weeks of school can be so hard for teachers. Because usually at that point, you’re wrapped up with most of the content you need to teach. You are wrapped up your textbooks, you’ve done most of that. But there are still weeks on the calendar that need to be filled. And the last thing that an exhausted teacher wants to do at the end of the year, is write a whole bunch of lesson plans. So chances are you’re out of energy for that; theme days will actually help with your planning, believe it or not, so enter the theme day, Heidi, tell us about theme days.

We think of them as little moments of peace dropped from the teacher saints above. Amen. And theme days aren’t achieved without a little prep. So yes, there will be an investment of time and resources upfront, like gathering books and supplies. But next year, you will be totally ready. And even better the next year after that. And after that, and all you have to do is pull out your theme day file in May or June. And you have got meaningful engaging piece restoring activities all ready to go.

So remember how we mentioned needing novelty to help with engagement at the end of the year? That can feel really overwhelming to plan for. The great thing about theme days is they actually provide structure and limits to planning in that novelty. So you know on that day or week, you’re going to need a set number of activities about a certain theme. And you don’t have to get bogged down sorting through the millions of ideas you could find on Pinterest. The theme allows for a lot of opportunities for fun, but it reduces your decision fatigue in your planning.

Don’t sweat it if it sounds overwhelming, because we are going to walk you through how to plan the perfect theme day. So the first thing you need is a theme. Some of our favorites are we have space day and camping day and chocolate day and quiet as a mouse day. Oh, I love those days ever. Absolutely any theme idea you’re excited about will work. After you decide your theme. You next need to decide how immersive you want your theme to be. And then how long you want that to last. So your theme experience can be as immersive or as simple as you need it to be. If you want to stretch it out, you can do your theme over a whole week. Or you can just do a single day. Or maybe you just want to fill an afternoon. You could also consider rotating classrooms with the other teachers. So you all have the same theme. And maybe you rotate and do different activities. Or maybe you each do a different theme. And you see a different class every afternoon. So you only have to prep for that once. Whatever you want to do works for you. There’s no right or wrong way to do a theme day. The key here is to know yourself. What do you as the teacher need most out of this experience? I love looking at classroom transformations on Instagram. But I also know myself and at the end of the year I am running on fumes. And I will just be setting myself up for failure if my goal for my theme day requires hanging anything from the ceiling. That is just no true no go. But if a classroom transformation lights you up as a teacher, if that is what just fills your bucket, go for it, you’re going to bring yourself out if you try to do this in a way that isn’t authentic to you.

Once you’ve chosen your theme, and you’ve decided how immersive you want the theme to be, then you need to decide if you want to stray from your normal daily schedule and routines, or if you want to incorporate the theme into a lot of the routines you already have in place. This is where the balance between novelty and routine becomes critical. The two of us both prefer to stick to the daily schedule pretty closely, because routine helps kids stay calm in our experience. But we might mix up the routines in that normal schedule. So my morning routine is basically sacred. So I rarely, if ever make any changes to the morning routine at all. But I might do a fun themed morning work page in that routine instead of our standard morning work. And then we do our normal morning meeting. But maybe with a theme day specific activity or morning message. For the rest of the day, I’d start working in those theme activities. For example, if it was writing time, on a camping theme day, we might write campfire stories or how to writing about making Smores. Instead of our usual centers, on a theme day we would rotate through themed activities and stations. And if I had certain centers I was already always doing every week, I would work a theme into the center they were already used to doing that is the easiest way to do this and have a lot less explaining to do for the kids too. So the way we like to do it we keep the framework of the day’s activities, married to our regular schedule, but the content becomes themed. This is the way that we found most effective for balancing novelty and routine, which just skyrockets the student engagement, but you get to decide what works best for you, and how you want to balance novelty and predictability in your theme day.

Next up in your theme day planning, decide what your learning goals will be for the day. Of course, we love having fun on our theme days. But it’s important to make sure that we’re still meeting learning goals too. Because we usually do theme days in May, we would choose a few math and ELA topics to revisit on each theme day. So testing may be over. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to quit practicing what we’ve been doing all year. And if you’ve listened to our previous podcasts, you know how passionate we are about retrieval practice. So we want to be giving students opportunities to retrieve that previously learned information in our theme days, because that will help them retain that knowledge in the future. So Heidi, what’s next in our theme day planning?

Once you figured out what your learning goals are, start plugging your plans in for the day. We like to work the theme and our learning goals into center activities like Emily already mentioned. We do whole group games, brain breaks, writing, and art. And I plug all of those into the schedule for the day. One of the things that made our theme day so successful in our classrooms was the packet. And we know worksheets can have a bit of a bad rap. We heard it all. This is maybe our unpopular teacher opinion. But just because something is copied on paper doesn’t mean it’s a worthless activity. And not all worksheets are created equal. Using a packet meets that need for predictability, because the content is previously learned. So they can complete it independently. But we’re keeping them engaged by ramping up the novelty. The theme makes old content seem new and fresh. It’s amazing what putting some clipart on the worksheet can do. And we work in some pages that are just for fun to make it seem more like a break from regular work. Even a word search can be really exciting and novel in this context. And in our experience, the kids are generally very excited about the packet. They love the packet. And so I would set aside anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes for kids to work on the packet. And we made sure to include enough activities that kids actually won’t be able to finish it during that time; we do that on purpose. But we want them to have a chance to make a good start and kind of get familiar with what’s in the packet, then that unfinished packet will stay on their desk the rest of the day and it becomes a handy dandy fast finisher already built into your plans.

Look how smart you are planning ahead.

Next, I like to round up some themed books, we always would read several books our classes every single day, because that was just a big part of our classroom culture. But bringing in books about a theme is an easy way to bring in novelty, while still kind of keeping some of the flow and the predictability of our daily routine. We use theme books for transitions and to introduce activities throughout the day. So for example, on Space Day, I might read If You Decide to Go to the Moon by Stephen Kellogg, which is a cute book. And then I would use that as a launch into a writing activity. And maybe we would be writing friendly letters as if we were visiting the moon and we’re telling our friends back home about all of our adventures. And if I have enough books on a topic, I might put them out for the kids to choose during their individual reading time. Or even if we’re rotating through centers, I might have a book reading center, which is an easy one to plan for.

And then lastly, it’s time to decide how you can add in some fun. This is where we work in some extra novelty on a theme day. And there’s lots of ways to do it, the sky’s the limit. We already mentioned theme centers and that’s a perfect place to work in fun. On Space Day, I like to do a rocket building center with some blocks. And it’s also fun to work in whole class activities on a theme day like and around the room review. That’s a great way to combine fun with meeting our learning objectives for the day. And theme brain breaks are always a hit. We love doing that. And maybe now that some of the testing pressures off think PE, art or craft is a must. And bonus points if you’re able to tie in to some learning objectives there too.

So let’s recap the steps for planning a theme day. First, choose a theme. Second, decide how immersive you want your theme experience to be. Third, decide how much you want to stray from your normal daily routine. Fourth, decide what your learning goals for the day will be. Fifth, start choosing activities for your theme day and consider a packet, the packet. Sixth, round up some themed books. I guess this is actually a step you could skip if you want but we think the theme books are important to your planning. And lastly, look for places to work fun into your day. And we have a free theme day Planning Guide available to help you plan your own theme day. You can find it in the show notes on our website at

And if you love this idea, but you’re thinking to yourself, Oh, I do not have time for this. We have you covered. We have some done for you theme days available in our shop. And we call them dlite days d l i t e, which stands for differentiated learning and integrated theme experience.

We love a good acronym.

Each theme set for first through third grade includes a differentiated packet, Brain Breaks, themed reading activity, task cards, differentiated whole class review activity, a themed close reading passage, and more, so much more. There’s tons of stuff in these, we’ve had a lot of fun with them. So we have a space theme and a camping theme available so far. And they’re only $5 each, and we will link to those in our show notes.

And we hope that this helps you survive those long days at the end of the school year, in fun engaging ways. Now let’s talk about this week’s teacher approved tip. Each week, we’re going to leave you with a small actionable tip that you can apply in your classroom today. This week’s teacher approved tip is print pages at 50% to save copies.

We love this tip, especially if you’re printing out packets for a theme day for example, it’s perfect to print out your pages at 50% and then we were just old school cut and paste them with literal scissors and glue to assemble a new master with two half size worksheets prepared to just but your copy machine might be fancy enough that they can achieve this without the cutting and pasting. Then we’d copy those back to back, so we’re getting four pages worth of activities on a single sheet of paper, which is really handy if you have a tight budget at your school for number of copies or amount of paper you can use. And even though the writing is small, the kids can usually write on them just fine, maybe not in kindergarten, but in second grade for sure they can handle that small print. And we know you just got to save those copies at the end of the year. So this is a very handy tip.

Absolutely. I use this all year long and not even just at the end of the year.

To wrap up the show we’re sharing what we’re giving extra credit to this week. Heidi, what are you giving extra credit to this week,

I am giving extra credit to Kensey Jones second grade class in Richmond, Virginia. Kensey volunteered at the local animal shelter and decided to have her second graders write some persuasive stories about why the dogs and cats there should get adopted through the point of view of that animal. And it was so popular, they helped get several of the animals adopted even ones that had been at the shelter for a while. So here’s one of their sweet little essays. It says “Hi, my name is Yosemite. I am a boy, I like the animal shelter. But you would be the best. If you’re looking for a pet please, please, please take me home. It would really make my day if you adopted me. I love cuddles, kisses and extra love. I’m begging you please adopt me.” Just Oh my god. This is the best second grade reading right there. And in all 24 animals, 23 dogs and one cat were part of the assignment and almost all of them have been adopted. So win win for everyone, animals, love, second graders, writing so good extra credit to that second grade class and that amazing teacher.

What about you, Emily, what’s your extra credit this week? Well, I’m giving extra credit to Grandpa Beck’s Games. So these are just the best family card games out there. Grandpa Beck comes up with these really fun, family game ideas that are just a blast to play. And they have also really amazing illustrations I have to say. And one thing I love about these games is that Grandpa Beck even puts his cell phone number in each game directions so that if you’re having an argument about the rules, you can call Grandpa Beck and he will tell you if you’re playing the game, right, which I have yet to actually call but I love knowing it’s there if we need it and Cover Your Assets is probably our most favorite of all the games but there’s so many other fun games. There’s The Bears and the Bees and Gnoming A Round that has the cutest gnomes are so cute and Skull King and Cover Your Kingdom. That’s a different kind of version of Cover Your Assets. They’re just so much fun. Every one we’ve played we have absolutely loved so I’m giving extra credit to Grandpa Beck Games, and we’ll put a link to these extra credit items in our show notes.

More About Teacher Approved:

Do you ever feel like there’s just not enough time in the day to be the kind of teacher you really want to be? The Teacher Approved podcast is here to help you learn how to elevate what matters and simplify the rest. Join co-hosts Emily and Heidi of Second Story Window each week as they share research-based and teacher-approved strategies you can count on to make your teaching more efficient and effective than ever before.